Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in plea to loyalists over new flag protests
Loyalists planning a repeat of the protests which paralysed Belfast and cost traders millions in lost revenue have been urged to "think again".
The appeal came from Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who warned businesses in the city centre cannot sustain further months of Union flag demonstrations.
"It is absolutely essential we don't have another winter of protests in Belfast city centre," she said.
"They are very economically damaging, not just for the retailers but for Northern Ireland as a whole."
Ms Villiers' plea to reconsider came as it emerged loyalists plan to stage another rally at the end of next month – almost a year to the day after their protests against Belfast City Council's decision to end year-round flying of the Union flag at City Hall began.
The self-styled Loyal Peaceful Protesters group has applied to the Parades Commission to hold a demonstration on Saturday, November 30 – one of the main shopping days in the run-up to Christmas.
The application from the group envisages a total of 10,000 people attending the event, which is to mark the first year of the council vote to switch to designated days for displays of the flag. Ms Villiers said: "We need a successful Belfast, a successful city centre, and that is very difficult to deliver if there is major disruption every Saturday afternoon. We really don't need another winter of disruption."
Her comments came during a visit to CastleCourt in Royal Avenue, where she met traders and business owners to discuss the impact of the protests.
Speaking the day after a letter-bomb addressed to her was intercepted at Stormont, Ms Villiers argued the flags issue should be left to the negotiations involving the five main Stormont parties – DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance – being chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass, who is in Dublin tomorrow.
"There is a better way to resolve issues around parades and flags," the Secretary of State, who met Dr Haass in London on Tuesday, said.
"The Executive have set up a process which is going forward. Richard Haass is an excellent chairman. I know he is determined to make progress. That is the way to get issues resolved.
"There is a process under way to try and find a way forward on flags which recognises the perspectives of everyone across Northern Ireland," she added. "They have had many opportunities to make their point via protest, there are better ways to achieve what they want to achieve – that is through conversations and through the sort of dialogue that is going ahead under the auspices of Dr Haass."
Weeks of demonstrations, which at times descended into street disorder, are estimated to have cost businesses up to £15m in lost trade.
A recent report from analysts Springboard and the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium found overall footfall in the city centre was down 3.1% in September compared with the same period last year.
Asked yesterday what help the Government could provide to alleviate the profit margin problems already hitting traders, Ms Villiers was not specific beyond appealing to politicians to make every effort to ensure the Haass process is a success.
"We may be starting to get on the path to recovery but it's still difficult for retailers.
"They really don't need another winter of disruption."
Weeks of street protests, some of them violent, cost Belfast businesses an estimated £15m in lost trade last Christmas as shoppers stayed out of the city centre.
Loyalist anger was sparked after Belfast City Council voted to end the permanent flying of the Union flag from City Hall in favour of designated days only.
First Minister Peter Robinson warned of a resumption of the protests earlier this month and urged: "I hope people will reflect on the damage that would cause to Northern Ireland and to traders in Belfast, potentially leading to a loss of jobs."